What if people could play the Georgia Lottery on the Internet, setting up electronic accounts and having the computer automatically play their favorite numbers?
State House members like the sound of that proposal, expecting lottery revenues would spike, and they've scheduled a Thursday vote on the bill.
There's just one snag lottery officials say it would probably violate federal gaming rules. Several states have eyed online lotteries, but none has adopted one yet.
The bill would allow lottery players to apply for an online account. They'd go to an existing lottery retailer and fill out an application, where they'd have to pay $3 and prove they were at least 18 years old. After getting approval by the state, players could then use a debit card to add money to an online account, directing their computer to automatically play their lucky numbers.
Republican sponsors say the online option would boost lottery funds just when the lottery sales are starting to dip. Sales in Georgia dropped $4.1 million during the first half of the budget year, down to $1.3 billion.
Rep. Terry Barnard, sponsor of the bill, said new strategies are needed to fuel lottery growth. Barnard envisions a day when the Georgia Lottery would also develop online-only games as a way to compete with popular online poker and other games.
"What makes a lottery successful is the ability to market new ideas, new games, new tickets. That in itself keeps more interest in the program," said Barnard, R-Glennville.
But lottery officials don't like the bill. They say federal law prohibits state-sponsored online gambling. And even though the bill simply allows the lottery to explore online gaming it doesn't require it the bill does outline how online lottery accounts would be managed if created.
"While the idea of purchasing lottery tickets on the Internet is not necessarily new, there's some uncertainty in regard to federal law," said Georgia Lottery spokesman J.B. Landroche.
A similar bill was introduced last year, but never voted on. Besides the legal questions, the bill was tripped up amid concerns it would make it easier for people to gamble themselves into debt. Currently the lottery is cash-only, with the thinking that it makes it tougher for people to buy more tickets than they can afford.
Another glitch was the lottery retailers, who feared they'd lose business to the Internet. This year, the bill includes a provision that a percentage of online spending would be shared with the retailer where the player got the application to play online.
Because of that change, convenience stores now say they're neutral on the bill. Jim Tudor, lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, said the bill isn't intended to cannibalize traditional sales.
"The core customer this bill is reaching out to may or may not be playing the lottery now," Tudor said.
Barnard acknowledged the many criticisms of his bill, but said his bold idea would keep the Georgia Lottery one step ahead of struggling lotteries in other states.
"What it appears is that though many states are taking a quick look, few have had the courage to step out," he said.
If approved by the House, the lottery bill would proceed to the Senate for further consideration.